HL Deb 29 April 1991 vol 528 cc535-9

7.6 p.m,.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

This Bill was originally presented in another place by my honourable friend the late Donald Coleman, then Member for Neath. His tragic death led to the Bill passing into the hands of my honourable friend the Member for Caerphilly who, with the support of the other sponsors and with the willing support of the Government, has seen it through all its stages in another place.

The Bill was conceived by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. It amends the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 to strengthen the prohibition against certain methods of killing or taking wild birds and other animals. At present the Act makes it an offence to employ certain methods. The amendment would also make it an offence to cause or permit others ro employ such methods. That will enable enforcement officers to question employers or landowners who may have instructed or allowed their staff to behave illegally and will bring wildlife legislation into line with legislation protecting domestic and farm animals which contains "cause or permit" provisions.

The need for greater protection is clear. The RSPB produced figures which show that last year alone birds of prey were involved in over 530 incidents of poisoning, shooting and trapping. Many of those incident; were illegal; and, given the size and nature of the terrain over which that takes place, it is safe to assume that the real figure is greater.

Many of our rarest and most beautiful species are at risk. I can give more statistics if noble Lords require them, but I shall not do that at this stage. There is on record at least one case of a gamekeeper who claimed that he had been instructed by his employer to lay poison, and that he was afraid of loosing his job if he did not obey. The gamekeeper was convicted but the employer had committed no offence against the law as it stanch and could not be prosecuted. Closing that loophole would make employers responsible for the acts of their employees and would undoubtedly improve wildlife protection. New Clause 1(4) provides a defence: in cases of accident or mistake.

The majority of farmers and landowners act responsibly. That makes it even more important that those who do not so act are prosecuted. The RSPB is to be congratulated on its dedication to the protection of wildlife, and I commend those members of staff who take considerable personal risks to collect information to illustrate their case.

I am grateful to the Government for their support so far, and I hope that that support is still available to see this Bill safely onto the statute book.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Baroness Nicol.)

The Viscount of Falkland

My Lords, on these Benches we agree wholeheartedly with everything that the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, said. I do not believe that there is anything contentious in the Bill. Most reasonable people would agree with the simple statement that it makes. It strengthens the provisions of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. For the first time it allows the police and others investigating offences where protected species have been "persecuted"—that is the word used by the RSPB—and killed unlawfully to question the real culprits who are the landowners and those who authorise their staff to trap, shoot and poison illegally the kind of wildlife covered by the Bill.

The Bill is in no sense an attack on legitimate field sports, nor will it reduce legal methods of controlling pest species. It is directed to deterring people from using illegal methods of killing wildlife. The background to the Bill is that, in the case of birds, in which I am personally interested, certain species are seriously threatened. As I was discussing outside your Lordships' Chamber with the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, there are people—not only young people—who do not appreciate that if these species are allowed to disappear because they are not adequately protected, those who follow will not be able to appreciate the beauty of many species which have enriched our wildlife in this country.

I refer specifically to the red kite. That is a bird which was, certainly during the 16th and 17th centuries, common over London. It was common throughout these islands and particularly in areas of habitation. Now there are only around 60 pairs known to be breeding in central Wales. I am told that the golden eagle is less threatened than it was. The buzzard, which has thankfully recovered in the south-western counties—Devon and Cornwall—is still threatened in southern and eastern England. The Bill will allow those species and others a reasonable chance to increase so that generations who follow will be able to enjoy them in the way that people have enjoyed them in the past.

We thoroughly support the Bill. However, I ask the Minister whether the Government would consider granting an amnesty arrangement, without fear of prosecution, for those who have stocks of unwanted pesticides so as to allow those pesticides to be withdrawn. That would be an additional help.

7.12 p.m.

Lord Moran

My Lords, I had not intended to take part in the debate. However, I should like to say a few words to indicate how strongly I support what the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, said, and how much I hope the Bill will receive the support of your Lordships.

I live on the edge of red kite country in Wales. It is a small and fragile population which has suffered greatly from persecution. There have been deplorable cases recently of red kites being poisoned. It is extremely important that everything possible should be done to stop that.

I feel very strongly also that gamekeepers who take action illegally against birds by putting out poisoned eggs and so forth, are liable to prosecution while their employers apparently are not liable at all. Any landowner whose gamekeeper or other employees behave in such a way should certainly bear a measure of responsibility. That is extremely important.

I hope your Lordships will support the Bill, which is an admirable and very necessary one.

7.14 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Nicol not only on the substance of the Bill, which I support officially from this Dispatch Box, but also on the way in which she introduced it. I congratulate her also on her sense of timing. No doubt my noble friend will have seen today's copy of The Times containing a splendid picture of Gurkhas protecting the last 52 nesting pairs of red kites in Wales. It makes one think that possibly this House is a habitat for endangered species. I cannot imagine many other places in the country where there are as many employers of gamekeepers as there are in your Lordships' House. The Bill brings those employers of gamekeepers to heel.

I see the noble Earl, Lord Swinton, present, who is undoubtedly an employer of gamekeepers. I hope that the Minister, who herself must be an employer of gamekeepers, will ensure that gamekeepers obey the provisions in the Bill.

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, I had not intended to speak but the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, mentioned my name. Like everything else, there are gamekeepers and gamekeepers. I am sure that my gamekeepers do not destroy anything which they are not allowed to destroy. The other day one took great pleasure in taking me out to show me a merlin's nest on my moor, which I was delighted to see.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I never doubted for a moment that that would be the case. However, the noble Earl has given me great encouragement in my belief that the nesting habits of employers of gamekeepers are as I suspected and as I hoped. This is a good Bill and deserves both the unanimous support it received in another place and the support of your Lordships.

7.16 p.m.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, in view of the last comments I should perhaps say at the outset that my name is Lady Blatch and not Lady Chatterley!

I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, in carrying forward this Bill, which the Government support wholeheartedly. We share her concern about the illegal killing of wild birds or animals, particularly where cruel or indiscriminate methods are used.

The noble Baroness explained that the Bill would make it an offence for a person to cause or permit another to contravene the provisions of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 which prohibit the use of certain means of killing or taking wild birds or protected species. The Act already provides very strict controls in that area and offenders face heavy penalties. But the Bill would help to strengthen those controls by making people who manage or oversee land responsible for ensuring that they or their employees do not use unlawful means to kill wildlife. We are thankful that most farmers and landowners act responsibly, as the noble Baroness said, and within the law. But, regrettably, there are those who pay little regard to the consequences of using substances or methods which cause unnecessary suffering to birds and animals and put at risk many of our endangered wild species.

The Bill would bring the Wildlife and Countryside Act into line with the equivalent legislation in Northern Ireland. It would also parallel provisions in the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985, which controls, among other things, the sale, storage and use of pesticides.

The Bill was amended in another place to reflect the Government's policy on the creation of "causes or permits" offences. It has always been implicit that the successful prosecution of such offences depends on evidence that the accused person had some sort of knowledge of the offence with which he was charged with causing or permitting. It is normal practice to make that clear on the face of the legislation and it helps to clarify the court's understanding of the nature of such offences. As amended, the Bill would make it an offence if a person knowingly caused or permitted another to contravene the Act's provisions for the protection of wildlife.

The House should also be aware that we propose to introduce, in Committee, two further minor amendments to bring the Bill into line with other legislation on the creation of new offences. The first would ensure that the Bill did not come into force on Royal Assent. As is usual, a period of two months would be allowed to give the public an opportunity to become aware of the changes in the law before they started to operate.

At this point perhaps I could answer the specific question raised by the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland. The two-month period would enable people who possess stocks of unwanted pesticide to get rid of them. We shall of course discuss with MAFF whether further action is required to ensure that unnecessary poisons are not held.

The second minor amendment would prevent the Bill, when enacted, from operating retrospectively. Anything done prior to the Act would not become an offence; only those actions taking place after the Act comes into force would be caught by the new provisions.

I am sure that noble Lords will agree that we owe it to ourselves and to future generations to take great care of our wildlife in order to preserve its abundance and diversity. The 1981 Act has been the vital key to establishing comprehensive and effective procedures for protecting species and their habitats. But unfortunately there are those who, by their thoughtlessness or ill-considered actions, undermine these procedures by acting outside the law and ignoring the wishes of the vast majority of people in their concern to preserve our natural heritage.

This Bill would help to bring home to people who use or permit the use of illegal methods to kill wildlife that we are determined to do everything possible to meet our objectives for the protection of our national heritage and especially our endangered species. We must stamp out illegal practices that cause so much unnecessary suffering to our wildlife and the death of species that do no harm. We wish the Bill well in its remaining stages.

7.20 p.m.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, I am grateful to everyone who has spoken in support of the Bill. I understand the amendment that the Government are bringing forward. I feel a little uneasy at the use by the noble Baroness of the phrase "to give them an extra two months in which to get rid of the pesticides". I hope that the result will not be that the pesticides are got rid of by a quick, all-over poisoning of the remaining terrain. However, we shall discuss that during the Committee stage.

The suggestion put forward by the noble Viscount for an amnesty on pesticides is a good idea. It will enable people to return them and perhaps remove the temptation to get rid of them by use. It is greatly to the credit of Members of your Lordships' House, among whom there are so many who employ gamekeepers, that none of them has turned out today to question the passage of the Bill. I take that as very encouraging and as a sign that they are all responsible employers of gamekeepers. I hope that the House will give the Bill a Second Reading.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committx1 to a Committee of the Whole House.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I beg to move that the House d o now adjourn during pleasure until five minutes past eight o'clock.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 7.22 to 8.5 p.m.]